pwer the people

The last ‘Mahant’of Nankana Sahib

His name was Narain Das, and he was the ‘Mahant’ (the high Priest) of Nankana Sahib during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Being the birth place of Guru Nanak, it was the holiest shrine, next only to the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. His life and deeds are so heinous and detestable that the community has obliterated his name. If I have chosen to write about him, it is because his ghastly act resulted in a revolutionary change in the management of Gurdwaras. To get a clear picture of the sequence of events, it is necessary to recount a few historical facts. These are:

  • Until less than a hundred years ago, Gurdwaras were managed by ascetic priests, known as mahants. Elected committees were alien to us Indians.

  • The mahants were the virtual owners of the shrines. They were like demi-gods, as far as the devotees were concerned. They did not have to get their accounts audited by any one, and their control over the assets was absolute.

  • For civic services and security, they were dependant on the British rulers, and therefore, they were loyal to them to the extent of being subservient. Police officers were accorded the red carpet treatment.

  • This system suited the British rulers. The Mahants had temporal authority over the masses, and so our political masters only had to win the loyalty of a handful of ‘godmen’ to manage the people.

  • On the face of it, the mahants were ascetic. Most of them were celibate, and the successors were chosen by them with the informal consent of the devotees. But over  a period of time, some of them became corrupt, unethical and even immoral.

 

The Udasi Cult

Before proceeding further, it is necessary to learn the genesis and meaning of the Punjabi word, ‘Udasi’.  For this, we turn to the Internet for an extract. Please note that the word is not derived from the word ‘udas’ which means sad.

Udasi or Udasin is a religious, ascetic sect, sampradaya (tradition) which considers itself as a denomination of Sikhism, and focuses on the teachings of its founder, Sri Chand, son of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder and the first guru of Sikhism. Its Time of origin is 1494 (birth of Baba Sri Chand Maharaj), established as an institution in early 1600s.

The word ‘Udasi’ is derived from the Sanskrit word which means “one who is indifferent to or disregardful of worldly attachments, a stoic, or a mendicant.” In Sikh tradition, the term udasi has also been used for each of the four preaching tours of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji; in this sense, udasi meant a prolonged absence from home. Some scholars, including many Udasis, trace the origin of the sect back to the Puraic age, but, historically speaking, Baba Sri Chand was the founder.

Gurdwara Janam Asthan, Nankana Sahib, a hundred years ago.

To put things in perspective, we give below, a map of Punjab which shows the location of the birth place of Guru Nanak.

 map
   

A recent picture of the main shrine is given below. It may be noticed, that even though the site is located in Pakistan, the gurdwara is well maintained. Devotees from all over the world congregate to celebrate the birth of Guru Nanak every year.

At the time when Mahant Narain Das was anointed the high priest of this holy temple, the shrine had 19000 acres (77 square kilometres) of highly fertile land attached to it. The income which accrued to him was enormous.   He did not have to depend on the donations of the devotees. He could, in fact, donate to the poor and the needy with ostensible generosity. He even had enough to entertain the British rulers and the policemen.

It is said that “paisa bolta hai” ( money talks) and in his case, the words were palpably loud ! The celibate priest yielded to his carnal desires, and began to lead two lives: a man of god during the day and an aristocratic lord at night. He entertained the people in power lavishly but kept his activity clandestine. But this secret leaked out, and a group of Sikhs protested. They wanted him to mend his ways. In due course of time, the movement acquired a lot of momentum. But since this move affected the other ‘mahants’ it was resisted tooth and nail. The prevailing system suited the British, and so they opposed it, with equal vigour and vitality.

 nankana sahib

 

Given below is a picture of the Mahant with the British rulers of that time:

 mahant narain

Mahant Narain Das is seated second from the right

 

Quest for Gurdwara Reforms

Forward looking Sikhs, who had been to Europe, sought a paradigm change in the management of Gurdwaras. They wanted elected persons to control the funds and other resources. A number of organizations emerged, and SGPC emerged as the most powerful body. The Jalianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919 fueled this fire more than everything else put together. At that time, the Golden Temple was controlled directly by the British through a ‘sarbarah’ (administrator). The incumbent in 1919 was a man called Sardar Aroor Singh.

The reaction of Aroor Singh (God bless his soul) was astoundingly obnoxious. He chose to honour Brig Dyer in the Golden Temple on 15 April 1919 with a robe of honour (‘saropa’) and a sword, and called him a saviour of the Sikhs. It seems that the freedom fighters were considered ‘anti-Indian’ mavericks while the British were our real guardians. As far as the pro-establishment Indians were concerned, the British had ‘liberated’ us from the tyranny of the Mughals. Aurangzeb was cited as the epitome of cruelty.

Jalianwala Bagh was meant to be a message of authority to the freedom fighters. The British believed in dealing with rebels with a firm hand. But in retrospect, it seems that they overdid it. Within a week, the Sikhs reacted, and they forced Aroor Singh to vanish from the scene. The Gurdwara reform movement turned into a serious affair. A number of agitations ensued.

After a grim battle, the Sikhs won the ‘Chabian da morcha’ (struggle for the keys) and that gave them the courage to fight against the mahants. Nankana Sahib was their next objective. They were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to evict the boss there. The Internet has many accounts of the peaceful battle fought there. The word used for this in the history is ‘Saka’ (which means violent struggle) For this piece, I have picked up a brief account from the Internet.

The Saka of Nankana Sahib

The Nankana Sahib Massacre refers to the grim episode during the Gurdwara Reform Movement/ Akali Movement in which a peaceful batch of reformist Sikhs were subjected to a murderous assault on 20 February 1921 in the holy Gurdwara at Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of Guru Nanak Sahib Ji.

It is alleged that the mahant became corrupt. Dance girls were allegedly brought to the Gurdwara and dances were held and obscene songs were sung within the holy premises. In 1917, he is said to have arranged a dance-show by a prostitute near the holy Gurdawara.

In October 1920, a congregation was held at Dharowal, District Sheikhupura to inform the sangat of the the misdeeds being committed inside Gurdwara Nankana Sahib. This Gurdwara along with six others in the town had been under the control of Udasi priests ever since the time the Sikhs were driven by Mughal oppression to seek safety in remote hills and deserts. The priests not only treated the Gurdwaras as their private properties but had also introduced practices and ceremonial which had no sanction in Sikhism.

At the meeting, it was unanimously resolved that the Mahant be asked to mend his ways. When Mahant Narian Dass was asked to do so, he started making preparations to oppose the Panth instead. He did not feel it necessary to pay heed to the suggestions of the Committee.

According to some, the Mahant, Narain Das, was a shrewd politician who publicly impressed that he was anxious to settle the issues with the Panth. On February 14, Mahant held a meeting with his associates to chalk out a plan to kill the opposing Sikh leaders on March 5 at Nankana Sahib. The Mahant recruited 400 mercenaries including fierce Pashtuns paid at twenty Indian rupees per month to oppose the Sikhs. With the government’s help, Mahant also collected guns, pistols and other arms and ammunition. He also arranged and stored fourteen tins of paraffin and further strengthened the Gurdwara gate and carved out shooting galleries.

Mahant Narain Das had the backing of the Mahants of other Gurdwaras in Punjab. The Bedi Jagirdars who had received Jagirs from the English Government by virtue of their past connections with Guru Nanak also supported the Mahant. Sardar Sunder Singh Majithia also maintained double standards. But the Maharaja of Patiala flatly refused to back Mahant and offered him sane advice not to rebel against the Panth. He further advised the Mahant to create a committee of prominent Sikhs and hand over the Gurdwara to them. But Mahant ignored the advice of the Patiala royal house.

nankana mascare

 Nankana Sahib Massacre of 1921

The Shiromani Committee extended invitation to Mahant for talks at Gurdwara Khara Sauda to resolve the issue but he did not show up at the given time. Then he offered to hold talks with the Sikh leaders in Sheikhupura on February 15, 1921, but again failed to show up. Third time he promised to meet the Shiromani Committee leaders at the residence of Sardar Amar Singh Lyall Gazette on February 16, but once again he failed to turn up.

In the meeting of Parbhandak Committee on 17 February 1921, it was decided that two jathas one led by Bhai Lachhman Singh and the other by Bhai Kartar Singh Virk (alias Jhabbar) should meet at Chander Kot on 19 February. From there they were to reach Nankana Sahib early in the morning of 20th February, to talk to the Mahant, Narain Das.

Thus on the morning of 20 February 1921, the jatha of 150 Sikhs led by Bhai Lachhman Singh entered the sacred precincts. The Mahant had got news of their arrival at Chander Kot on the evening of 19th February. He had gathered his men at night and briefed them about their duties.

After the jatha of Sikhs had sat down, the Mahant signalled his men to carry out the predetermined plan. The Sikhs were chanting the sacred hymns when the attack started. Bullets were mercilessly rained on them from the roof of an adjoining building. Bhai Lachhman Singh was struck down sitting in attendance of the Guru Granth Sahib. Twenty-six Sikhs became martyrs to those bullets in the courtyard while another sixty or so sitting inside the Darbar Sahib became targets of bullets. When the Mahant’s men saw no one moving, they came down with swords and choppers. Any Sikh they found breathing was cut to pieces.

Outside the main gate, Narain Das, pistol in hand and his face muffled up, pranced up and down on horseback directing the operations and all the time shouting, “Let not a single long-haired Sikh go out alive.” Bhai Dalip Singh, a much-respected Sikh who was well known to him, came to intercede with him to stop the bloody carnage. But he killed him on the spot with a shot from his pistol. The total number of Sikhs killed has been variously estimated between 82 and 156.

As news spread in Punjab, 20 Pathans were arrested, the Gurdwara was locked and the city was handed over to the Army which cordoned it to prevent any Akali movement to take over the Gurdwara. Sardar Kartar Singh Jhabbar arrived with his jatha on 21st February. Commissioner, Mr King, informed him that if he tried to enter the city with his jatha, army would open fire. Kartar Singh Jhabbar and his jatha of twenty two hundred Sikhs did not listen to the Commissioner and kept on moving towards city. In the end,the Deputy Commissioner, Mr. Curry handed over the keys of Gurdwara to Bhai Kartar Singh Jhabbar.

On the 22nd/ 23rd February, the bodies were cremated according to Sikh tradition. Charred, mutilated bodies were collected and torn limbs and pieces of flesh picked from wherever they lay in the blood stained chambers. A huge funeral pyre was erected.

An Urdu newspaper called ‘Zamindara’ wrote in its editorial of 23 February 1921, “what more proof of shamelessness of Muslims is required than that they have helped the Mahant. O, Shameless Muslims, isn’t the cup of your shamelessness and impudence full as yet? You used your guns and swords against those who went to Nankana Sahib to perform religious duties. You are not fit to be called Muslims. You are worse than infidels.”

Mahant, 20 Pathans and others of his group were tried and sentenced by British. Only Mahant and a few of the Pathans got death sentence for this crime.

Bhai Hira Singh ji at Nankana Sahib

An eminent singer of Gurbani, Bhai Hira Singh ji had been keeping  track of the events, and on the day when this carnage took place, he rushed to Nankana Sahib. He was assigned the task of performing the formal ‘prakash’ of the bullet-ridden ‘Guru Granth Sahib’ and also to offer the ‘antim ardas’ for the martyrs. A picture taken on the occasion, which was published in the newspapers of that time is given below. Copies of this picture with the caption are displayed in some museums.

 bahihira

 

The Aftermath

The struggle to free the Gurdwaras from the stranglehold of autocratic mahants did not end on that fateful day, but it sure was the ‘beginning of the end’. There was resolute resistance to change. But, after a long and tortuous struggle, Sikh Gurdwaras Act, 1925  was  enacted by the Punjab Legislative Council on 9 July 1925.  It marked the culmination of the struggle of the Sikh people from 1920-1925 to wrest control of their places of worship from the mahants or priests into whose hands the Gurdwaras had passed. The Gurdwaras are now managed by committees of elected members who have fixed terms. The transition to the democratic paradigm is the result of a passionate struggle of those who participated in that historic movement.

A Tailpiece

There is a striking similarity between the Jalianwala Bagh carnage of 13 April 1919 and the Nankana Sahib massacre. In both cases, the men in power wanted to ‘crush’ the revolutionaries, by teaching them a lesson. In both cases they lost. The bullet yielded to the power of people. In a manner of speaking, Mahant Narain Das, committed a crime more monstrous than Brig Dyer. He opened fire at devotees, peacefully praying inside the temple, of which he was the high priest. Someone has observed,

 

Mahant Narain Das has out-Dyered Brig Dyer!

 

 stne

 

 

 

  1. Maj Gen S Rishi says:

    My dear Surjit,

    Well researched and lucid blog.

    It is not surprising that such a dastardly act took place due to unbridled power being handed over to an individual without
    any checks and balances. With SGPC firmly in control now similar display of greed and betrayal of devotees’ trust will hopefully not repeat.

    Thanks a lot for sharing.

    Regards,
    Surendra

  2. Srimurti Saraswati says:

    Thanks.
    Srimurti

  3. Prabal Sen says:

    Sir, I did not know about this incident and subsequent reform in management of Gurdwaras. Thank you very much.

    Maybe some reform is required in Hindu pilgrim centers also , many temples are manged by priests on hereditary lines.

  4. soorkhan says:

    Dear Surjit,

    Your noble efforts for educating & bringing back the memories of Sikh history & touching episodes has evoked the interest in the subject of Sikh History.

    Blissful activity in retirement.

    Love you Sir for your pro-activity towards leading the cause.

    soorkhan

  5. Dave Sood says:

    Another piece of History rarely seen or read in my life.

    During my various visits to Lahore, I tried to go to Nankana Sahib. Permission never came on time.

    Sad how power corrupts at all stages of our life. Even today.

  6. Dr BV Prabhu says:

    Sir,
    Thanks for this post.

    I remember you very often and your contribution in developing me. On teachers’ day too I was remembering you.

    Sir, May I have your phone no.

    PrabhuBV

  7. SL Vashisht says:

    Thanks for sharing sir !
    SL Vashisht

  8. Lt Gen Raj Mehta says:

    Thanks for sharing.
    Raj

  9. Karnail Singh says:

    Sir,
    Mahant Narain Das was not the only ‘Udasi’ head priest of a historical gurdwara. There were at least sixty more from that sect (or cult) There is reason to believe that all of them were not corrupt. Some were highly devoted to the teachings of the Gurus. But after the Nankana Sahib incident, all of them were sacked.
    In Punjab they sat that when the wheat is ground, if there is anything else in the grain, even live insects are crushed!
    Karnail Singh

  10. Raj Manchanda says:

    Thank you Sir for posting this piece of history in the management of the Gurudwaras.
    Very simply and lucidly put across. And very illuminating!
    Only re-emphasises that we need to be alert about what is happening in any institution, not just religious, around us where we are involved, and if possible, nip it in the bud.

  11. SS Mann says:

    Sir,
    We have seen similar instances corruption and misuse of power in ‘ashrams’ and ‘deras’ during the last few years. To that extent, it is clear that things have not changed; or have they?
    It seems that it is a part of human nature to yield to our base instincts. A vigilant public is needed to keep the godmen in check.
    Mann

  12. Brig ZS Khosa says:

    Thanks for bringing to light one of the bloodiest and sad massacres of Sikhs.
    My Taya ji Jathedar Rattan Singh was jailed then for leading Jatha to Jaito.
    Over the periods, new brand of political Mahants have taken over, and are looting Crores which could be used for welfare of poor masses of Punjab

    Brig Khosa

  13. Gagi Gandhi says:

    Thanks for sharing an eye opener what sacrifices made by SHAHIDS SEEMS WE NEED ANOTHER SUCH MOVEMENT

    Colonel Randhir Singh Dhillon Marg Patiala

  14. Col ABS Sidhu says:

    Well written article on Sikh struggle

    to free Gurudwaras from the hold of

    the Mahants .

    An eye opener for the devotee Sikhs .

    The blog is written by Gen Surjit Singh

    ABS Sidhu

  15. Lt Gen RK Gaur says:

    Forwarded to my mailing list
    RKG

  16. Brig Anil Adlakha says:

    Thanks.
    Anil

  17. JN Amrolia says:

    Was not aware of this piece of history.
    Thanks for sharing.

    JNA

  18. Col IP Singh says:

    Sir,
    Thanks.

    WITH WARM REGARDS COL I.P. SINGH 9810516383

  19. Cdr Prem Prakash Batra says:

    This forward by General Surjit Singh throws some light on NANKANA Sahib, the birth place of Guru Nanakji in Punjab/Paksitan. There used to be mention of PUNJA Sahib in my NANKAS; where in Warwaal/Chakwal, there were 1/2 Gurdwaras. My NANAKAS used to make pilgrimage to PUNJA Sahib and NAKANA Sahib 150 to 200 KMs away. My Mother studied upto Class 2 in Gurudwara and knew by heart Granth Sahib and her Payers on 100 years used to be Granth Sahib, Bhagwat Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata and an Help, who would read to her. There was Gurdwara right opposite the GALI in my Paternal House in Talagang/Punjab. Since my Father was not allowed what ever as PANJ PAYRAS, he adopted Arya Samaj.

    Today, intermarriages are rare between Hindus and Sikhs from Punjab. Even Brothers interaction is more formal at least in Delhi. My SANDHIS have 2 Sikh Daughter-in-Laws. He was the Principal of Khalsa College/Punjab.

    The Account forwarded by General Surjit Singh, Sir, appears that there are followers of 1st Guru and last Sikh Guru. Some sense is obvious and some seems hazy. Any bi-partizian view.

    With best regards,

    Commander Prem

  20. Col GS Virk says:

    Dear Gen Surjit

    Greetings

    Your mail below on the sub was fwd to me by a close friend.

    It is delighting to read a wonderful articulation of the Events around Gurdwara reforms movement of 1921 or so.

    A splendid effort to illustrate the sikh sit obtainable during that period

    I will like to meet you sir ,if feasible and interact on various facets of sikh history / religion. I am based in Mohali.

    Kindly advise.

    Regards & God Speed

    Col Gurkirpal Virk

    Mahar Regt Veteran.

    Mob. 9960788371

    Sect 66 A. Airport Road.

    Mohali.

  21. Col UBS Ahluwalia says:

    Surjit,
    Great job educating us on our history!

    Nanak bless you!!

    Udhe Bir

  22. Lt Gen Paramjit Singh says:

    Very interesting and informative, Sir.
    Thank you very much

    Regards
    Paramjit

  23. Lt Col S.K.Sharma says:

    Sir, Enlightened to read this part of the history of NANKANA SAHIB narrated beautifully by you and salute to the sacrifices made by Sikh community for better management of Gurdwaras to follow.

    Sir, you were my Commandant at FON. Regards…..Satish

  24. Brig Surinder Singh says:

    A beautiful piece, nicely written. History describes the classic dilemma when a decision had to be taken by Bhai Lachman Singh whether to go ahead with his mission or postpone it because instructions had been received from Akal Takht which said that negotiations with the Mahant should resume.It is said that he took the decision after the “Waak” was read out from Guru Granth Sahib and the Gurudwara was liberated.

    Surinder

  25. Ghai B B says:

    Excellent recall of history & superbly autherered. It is a pleasure to read your articles.

    With profound regards.

  26. Sikka says:

    Interesting. Well researched and written.

  27. Very informative post. Every religious institution has a seat of power and gets misused when there is no oversight or promoting cult worship of demigods. This happened with Christians , Hindus ,Muslims and Sikhs in the past.

    A truly transparent and democratic set up is essential to manage the affairs of such institutions.

  28. Joseph Thomas says:

    A story that Gen Surjit Singh had been promising to write for a long time. Thanks for putting it out at last. He has not mentioned that he is the grandson of Bhai Hira Singh ji.

  29. Gangadharan says:

    Dear Sir,

    There is sacrifice in every transformation.There is always resistance to change.Power corrupts people in all walks of life.A moving story of Gurudwra management.

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